Sexism and mistreatment of women in the entertainment business: This enduring moral rot can take so many different forms. Bullies aren't limited to tyrant movie moguls. They can also be manipulative ballet directors, like the fictional Boris Lermontov, whose desire to control his favorite ballerina, onstage and off, drives "The Red Shoes" to its shocking conclusion.
It's shocking, that is, in the wonderful 1948 film by that name. In the less-successful stage adaptation, directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, which opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, the ending is somewhat of a muddle. So are parts of the rest. Storytelling is not the strength of this wordless, songless musical, though it is handsomely designed and beautifully danced.
On opening night, American Ballet Theatre star Marcelo Gomes vaulted through memorable passages of highflying rapture as the young ballet composer Julian Craster. The fetching Ashley Shaw, a veteran of Bourne's New Adventures company, lent warmth and eagerness to dance hopeful Victoria Page. (The show runs through Sunday with a rotating cast.)
Yet while the performers are highly animated, Bourne isn't sure what story he wants them to tell. His "Red Shoes" meanders, and lacks the emotional pull of his past romps, such as his vampire-studded "Sleeping Beauty," which played here in 2013, and his early blockbuster "Swan Lake," with an au courant narrative that included the British royal family and sexy male swans.
It's tough to take on a beloved film. Broadway has recently hosted fine musical versions of two dance-centered movies: "An American in Paris" (the musical arrives at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 12) and "On the Town" (which began life as a musical before it was a film). Yet adapting the movie "The Red Shoes" — written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — into a nonverbal production is another matter. Its themes are complex, layered and brilliantly realized on the screen. The single-minded zeal of artists and art-lovers courses through each scene, as vividly as its color-saturated beauty. It centers on the ballet world, but its true subject is more general. It's a study in artistic passion, told through the feverish ambitions of a budding dancer, a young composer and the impresario who grooms them for stardom but cannot abide it when they fall in love. He'd rather his ballerina be great — that is, molded by him alone — than be happy.
Bourne's version is quite lovely when he's illuminating what he knows best: the raucous communal life of the whole troupe of Lermontov's dancers. The scenes of them partying together in the moonlight, or rehearsing in kimonos, cigarettes dangling from lips, are a riot. A section of the ballet "Les Sylphides" is charmingly evoked with only half a dozen dancers. The "Red Shoes" ballet-within-a-ballet, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of a girl whose enchanted shoes compel her to dance to death, is strikingly imagined in a modernist black and white set, like something from I.M. Pei's sketchbook.
Lez Brotherston, Bourne's customary set and costume designer, devised an ingenious proscenium arch that can swing around onstage to instantly shift perspective from the audience view to backstage. The mechanics must be a bit tricky, however; on Tuesday, this arch caused an abrupt 10-minute halt to the show soon after it began, when a chandelier coming into position for the next scene got in the way.
While the decor is appealing, the recorded music, compiled from excerpts of cinematic scores by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, is only serviceable, and it suffers in sound quality.
What of the main characters? I never felt I understood much about them. The domineering director Lermontov (Sam Archer, at the opening) is the least well-defined, though I'd guess Bourne could relate to him in some ways.
What ought to make Lermontov, Page, the dancer, and Craster, the composer, interesting are their dreams and hungers. As Craster, Gomes delivers a flash of this, with a powerful psychological wrestling match with himself in one scene. He launches into the air, tumbles to the stage and soars every which way, conveying something of what's inside him as he writes. The passion to create — in music, in dance, in developing an artist — is such a rich vein, but too often Bourne merely sidesteps what he could have mined.
The Red Shoes Directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday. $49-$129. 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.